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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September 5 was Teachers' Day and Communal Harmony Day!

This is one of those occasions when we find an opportunity to remind ourselves of certain basic, essential and all-too-easily-neglected values which are needed to hold our nation together. On the face of it India is making all-round progress at a breathtaking pace, as the media keep reminding us with hysterical glee morning and evening, and yet all of us are actually very well aware that things are not well with us as a nation – too many things keep threatening to go out of control and fall apart. Whether it is extreme poverty in Kalahandi and Amlashol, or terrorism in Kashmir and Mumbai, or Indian scientists being arrested for passing on strategic secrets to unfriendly nations and students beating teachers to death or brides burning themselves for being unable to pay adequate dowries or old women being burnt as witches by fellow villagers or well-educated girls from well-off urban families ganging up to rob shopping malls, or the facts that India has the largest army of child labour and the highest rate of female infanticide in the world, the message comes across loud and clear – without more fellow-feeling and social responsibility and goodwill, India’s progress is sure to be slow and hesitant, if there is much genuine progress at all.

For too long too many of us have been pursuing a chimera: we believe that progress and prosperity and peace and safety and dignity and all the other good things of life are possible and attainable for a few in isolation from the many. We say ‘look at the burgeoning middle class in the cities and towns!’ to prove our point to ourselves, we point to the growing and rich NRI diaspora in Europe and America, we count on our fingers how many dollar millionaires India is adding to herself every year, and more fancy colleges and hospitals and shopping malls and housing complexes and holiday resorts – and we shut our eyes to the frightening reality that all this is too little, and even this is being achieved at too high a price – in terms of the damage we are doing to our health, both physical and mental, by constantly running the rat race, in terms of the damage we are doing to the natural environment measured by lost soil fertility and forest cover, extinct species of wildlife and arsenic in the water and shrinking glaciers, and in terms of social disharmony, as ever bigger numbers fall out of what we fondly imagine to be the mainstream. I am talking about the millions of school dropouts for whom the doors of this good life have been closed forever in teenage, about the 300-million odd people for whom there seems to be no hope of ever rising above the poverty line, I am talking about the enormous hordes who eke out their miserable lives in sordid urban slums, engaged in all sorts of very ill-paid, humiliating, uncertain and subsistence-type occupations. And I am also talking of the fact that we of the middle- and upper middle classes are perfectly well aware that much of our prosperity is fake, for it has been attained by dishonest means; too many of us have not really earned the money we spend on financing our artificially-aggrandized lifestyles. Which is precisely why the most open secret in India is that nothing moves without a bribe here. If this is not fast becoming a dysfunctional society, which one is?

As if all the economic problems were not enough to give us permanent headaches, we are increasingly making things more difficult for ourselves by adding on to them, making them more complicated and intractable with the poison of communal hatred. Fifty years ago there was some hope that the old bugbears of casteism and religious discord were weakening their hold on the Indian psyche: now they seem to have undergone a great resurgence. Far from becoming a more united nation, with clearer and more universal goals and ideals shared by all, we are becoming a more fractious society and polity with the passage of time. At the rate we are going, many of our children will not be able to get an education or medical treatment or jobs or housing except on the basis of their communal identities! Does it require too great a stretching of the imagination to visualize how, by that time, frustration and anger will run so high among enormous numbers of people, both young and not so young, that they will increasingly take recourse to foul and violent means to wrest all those conveniences and privileges which the mainstream had always refused to grant them peacefully and legally? All the unrest that we are seeing all around us, in Andhra and in Bihar, in Kashmir and in the north-east or on the streets of New Delhi, all the insecurity on trains and highways and aeroplanes, is only a pale foreshadowing of the horrors to come. The disaster is already looming over the horizon; we cannot console ourselves with the thought that it will all happen, if it does, in the distant future. And none of us can plead innocence: we have all been complicit in making this mess, as voters and civil servants, parents and teachers, neighbours and journalists – if we are merely guilty of having left all thoughts of the greater common good to professional thinkers, pretending to mind our own businesses and hoping that if only we did not look for long enough the monster would simply go away, we are all responsible. On sadbhavna divas, we need to remind ourselves that no matter how trite and tired it sounds, the fact is that as long as we live in societies and nations, we must all swim together or sink together. ‘No man is an island’, the poet has warned; we Indians need to take that warning seriously. Jai Hind.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

My India

I had dreamt of living in a country where there was genuine peace and prosperity and friendliness and justice and good taste all around me, a country that was admired and emulated for all the right things – its reputation for fair play and gentleness and courtesy in public life, its love of art and science, its wealth, growing and decently shared out among all its people, so that no one is ostentatiously rich and no one goes with her or his basic needs (including personal dignity) unfulfilled, its concern for its cultural heritage and its natural environment, its admiration of the great, its encouragement of all those who seek to be great, and the care it takes of the weak and helpless, as well as its capacity to inspire other nations which regard it with respect or to strike them with awe if they are not capable of respect. Instead, too many prospects seem to have grown visibly darker in my own lifetime.

In a larger sense, the rot, insofar as I am conscious of it, has spread worldwide; it is most certainly an age dominated and led by greedy philistines with no regard for things of the spirit or for all the good things of the past, nor a thought to spare for the morrow, and that is an awful situation, because more than ever before, mankind’s predicament is such that we all need to learn from the past and avoid doing things that put our collective future at risk. Instead, it’s becoming more and more a case of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’: they’re teaching this vicious gospel in the best business schools today, and people are signing pre-nuptial contracts over what exactly they should owe each other in case they part ways a few years down the line! I remember Henry Kissinger talking to a gathering of college students a generation ago ‘You kids ought to be grateful to us – we’re leaving quite a few problems behind for you!’ and it’s no longer amusing.

Will there be a 22nd century for mankind, and will it be worth living in if you were Everyman? Nothing gives me worse creeps than the awareness that already millions of middle-class parents around the world are dreaming that their ‘little emperor’ will somehow manage to become a billionaire in his early twenties and thus perhaps avoid ‘reality’ forever. And simultaneously hoping (at least in this country) that the darling, thus brought up, will deign to take care of all their needs in their old age! God help us.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is speed always conducive to human happiness?

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives have been moving faster and faster. Today we can travel around the globe in a matter of hours, talk across continents over the telephone, follow on television what is going on in the farthest corners of the world, and work out millions of calculations per second on computers. Our ancestors would stare in awe if they saw us now, and many of us would loudly boast of the tremendous progress we have made since their time in every walk of life. – And yet there is a growing feeling among many thoughtful people that all things have not changed for the better: that life does not become happier or more satisfying if we simply do things faster than our forefathers.

Most of us prefer driving cars to cycling or walking because cars are faster. But we rarely pause to ask ourselves whether we always need to move about so fast, and we forget that greater speeds greatly increase the risk of death or crippling injury on the road. Also, that cycling and walking cost little, keep us fit and do not pollute the atmosphere. Why does the average man need to move so fast? Alexander and Hiuen Tsang travelled on foot, but they achieved in a few years much more than today’s common man will do in his lifetime, and Gandhiji, travelling on foot or by train, saw more of India more closely than today’s prime ministers do from their aeroplanes!

In education today, many parents and teachers are trying to cram little children’s minds with more information than they ever acquired until they were adults, not realizing that there is a limit to what cramming can do. The more children learn by rote the less they understand, the more they forget, and the more they hate learning. As a result we now have millions of young people who cannot or do not want to remember even what they learnt last year, while their grandparents can happily recall what they were taught fifty years ago! You cannot speed up the pace of education indefinitely without spoiling it.

People keep saying that because it is a ‘fast life’ full of hurry, worry and activity, they have no time to spare for loved ones any more. And so more and more people, especially children, housewives, the old and the ill are feeling neglected, frustrated and terribly lonely. Families are breaking up, crime and juvenile delinquency are rising, love and romance are vanishing from human lives, TV-addiction, drug abuse and suicide are becoming widespread. Even as luxuries, amusements and gadgets of convenience multiply and we become more prosperous, it is strange to see more people complaining of unhappiness than ever before. The reason is not hard to find. Mere material prosperity cannot make people happy – they need time to enjoy their possessions and privileges, and an excess of speed, by robbing them of time, can make life unbearable.

Much of the most important work in life cannot be done in a hurry. You need time and patience to cure a sick man, not just medicines. Rearing a child, reading a good book, learning a serious skill or making a garden – they all take time, lots of it. Some of the most marvellous things in this world would never have been created if people had always been in a tearing hurry. The Taj Mahal would not have been built, the Oxford Dictionary never compiled, the electric bulb never invented: they all took many, many years of slow and patient labour to see the light of day. In many ways our lives are rich and full today because we are enjoying the fruits of the long and loving labours of our ancestors. If we want to enjoy our lives more, we must learn the virtues of slowness and patience and attention all over again. And if all of us waste our lives in fast living, our descendants might complain that we never did anything really valuable for them!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Are you sure

· That ‘status’ is worth hankering for, that it has any real meaning?
· That anybody (other than maybe a few rockstars, sportsstars, presidents and celebrity billionaires – a few hundred folks on the whole planet) has any generally acknowledged ‘status’ at all? Is the average doctor or engineer or job contractor or banker – say your own father – known (let alone admired and respected) to anybody outside his little circle of colleagues, relatives, neighbours… town?
· That ‘status’ will give you security and meaning and purpose in life, rather than attract envy and malice and spiteful talk and so fill you with growing frustration? That’s what happens most commonly – have you found out yet? It would be miserable to find out after you are forty!
· That status (and security, and health, and love, and happiness – all the really good things in life) can be bought with marks in childhood and money for the rest of your life?
· That beyond a certain (quite humble) point money matters at all? I find that if I were alone, I can get along very well with Rs. 8,000 in Durgapur and Rs. 15,000 in Delhi; having a family, I maybe ‘need’ three times that much. Are you quite sure you ‘need’ a job that pays, say, five or ten times that much – even if you know it’s a boring, or embarrassing, soul-destroying job?
· On the other hand, do you want such a job, despite knowing that it will not really give you anything you want – like real wealth (which means you need at least a thousand times as much as the figures mentioned above), and might quite possibly rob you of leisure, and hobbies, and privacy, and love and health and other precious things like that in the bargain? Aren’t you selling your life short?
· And if that’s the kind of life your parents and teachers (whether in primary school or management school) are grooming you for, having already succeeded in convincing you that there’s nothing better to aim for and you don’t merit anything better, haven’t they shortchanged you badly? Are you still quite sure that they ‘wish you well’? Are you sure that you are ordinary and want to go on being ordinary like everyone else?
· If you are in your early twenties, you’ve still got time to make a big change. Ten years more, and you will be left with only worry and regret for the rest of your life … say another forty years? Does that sound good?
· Have you got any ideals? Has any of them become both successful and happy by doing the things you are doing, the way you are doing them? – mine haven’t, whether I think of Abraham Lincoln or James Herriot, Richard Branson or Tom Hanks, Dadathakur or Bibhuti Banerjee.
· Does buying and owning things – not because you need them but just because you own them – really make you feel happy? Does anyone ‘need’ 80-lakh rupee cars, one lakh-rupee watches, 10,000-rupee shoes and 5,000-rupee handbags – or ‘need’ to change them every few months to be ‘in’ with one’s peer crowd? Couldn’t an obsession with shopping and owning things and ‘being in’ perhaps be a sign of mental weakness or disease, quite akin to eating disorders or obsession with ‘looking good’ – a sign that a person’s life is absolutely empty of meaningful interests and occupations? Wouldn’t it be a better use of your time to look for such interests and occupations – whether they be learning music or reading or exercise or gardening or making happy families – than to keep on shopping, and fretting over how to pay the mounting credit card bills? Has it ever occurred to you that big business is making you and your peers dance to their tunes, like puppets on a string, like slaves, in the name of giving you a good life?
· Does love matter? Does love mean anything beyond habit and tradition and biological/economic dependence and ego-identification (I think I get angry when somebody criticises my father because I love him – maybe it’s only my own fragile ego, which greatly depends on my father’s image in my mind, that gets hurt by what may quite possibly be the truth? Or I love my mother because she feeds me without asking for payment and does all my cleaning and washing for me? – have you pondered over what Karan did to his father in Rang de Basanti?) Have you ever loved rather than merely wanted to be loved? Have you identified loving with giving? Do you often tell your ‘loved ones’ that you’re ‘busy’? Do you know how to take gifts with love? Do you know that time and comforting words and non-judgmental listening can be the greatest of loving gifts? Are you sure that without love anyone can be either ‘successful’ or happy? If so, why is there so much delinquency, drug-abuse, TV- and shopping-mall addiction, extra-marital affairs, rocky marriages, confusion that needs calling on psychiatrists, violence and divorce in so many ‘educated’ and ‘well-off’ families today (just read the papers!)? Are you sure you’re not going the same way?
· Have you ever thought ‘out of the box’, done something because you like/want to do it, instead of just blindly following the herd? (this may relate to everything from clothes and parties to schools and examinations, pujas to watching movies or chattering about cricket). Did it feel good, or painful and frightening?
· Have you ever carefully examined your attitudes (do you have any personal attitudes at all, or do you merely parrot the conventional ones you have unconsciously imbibed from parents, relatives and friends?) to things like work, study, health, leisure, love, money, sex, time, death and all the other important things in life? The best counsellors down the ages are unanimous that leaving aside luck (or karma, or God’s will – call it what you like) attitude decides everything in life. Are you sure your attitudes are not exactly the opposite of the ones you need to be really successful in life (for example, you are lazy and afraid to take risks and responsibilities and have no imagination and no special/valuable skills, yet you want the lifestyle of a billionaire – have you ever made the effort to find out what makes some people billionaires? Are you sure that accepting that you will forever be ordinary and learning how to be happy as an ordinary person won’t be the best attitude-change that you can make: NOW? Otherwise, when will you start aiming really high? Isn’t it getting mighty late already?
· Do you have any inkling of what the world is really like? (one way is to check how much you know about the lifestyles and problems of the poor or badly-off – more than half the population of this country still! Or are you totally hypnotized by the rich and powerful ten percent? Then again, have you ever read the biography of a seriously rich man?) Are you sure that outside your little sphere of ‘specialisation’, you will never ‘need’ to know?
· Ever tried a bit of charity? – It’s said to work for your own good, more than others’! Or are you sure (perhaps without ever trying!) that it’s no good?
· What about religion? Have you thought about your elders’ attitudes? Are they very religious? In what sense? Why? Does religion mean anything to them beyond practising certain rituals unthinkingly with others like themselves? If they aren’t religious, why not? And what about you then? If religion is bad or uncool, have you found something better?
· Do you have friends? Are you sure they are your friends? Have you tried to make friends?
· Are you sure that when you keep saying you are busy, you are not actually being merely lazy and forgetful and irresponsible? Have you looked around at people and tried to find out what they are ‘busy’ at? Surely mere gossip and TV and attending parties and shopping around and sleeping and eating cannot make anybody busy? How many people do anything but that – except when they absolutely must, like at examination time or when a job is at stake because one has got a tough boss? Have you ever cared to find out?

The above questions are all designed to make you think – really think, not like in solving inane school-math problems or plotting mischief against classmates or colleagues or choosing a hotel or beautician, but brainstorming about the most important things in life, all by yourself. That is what people like us need to do most these days, and are actually doing the least, on the pretext that we are busy and actually because we are afraid of thinking and would much rather dumbly follow the herd. Whether it’s Socrates or Bertrand Russell, J.K. Rowling or Robin Sharma (The Monk who sold his Ferrari), they are all asking you to think – but you either don’t listen, or pay attention to them for all the wrong reasons (Rowling is making so much money!), or don’t reflect on what they are saying, or forget everything promptly, and never try to APPLY what they are saying to your own life and see whether it makes life better for you.

So think. Then, if you like, get back to me. And if you liked reading this, get as many of your friends and relatives to read it as you can. I am sorry I didn’t put in any graphics – but that’s only because they are always designed to distract you!!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sudhirda

(that was Sudhirda with my daughter on her sixth birthday)

He was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in February, and we were all told we must simply wait for him to die, so I pensioned him off and he went home, and lingered on for a few months, steadily wasting away, until this morning, Monday July 10, 2006, I was told that he passed away more or less peacefully last night. God rest his soul. ‘He was my friend, faithful and just to me…’, he had brought me up right since I was a toddler, had stuck around like my shadow through an incredible number and variety of vicissitudes, had been my all-round factotum, comrade in arms, shoulder to weep upon, ever smiling, uncomplaining drudge ever willing to oblige, someone I could trust with everything except what was beyond his ken and work alongwith at mundane chores and laugh and pass the time of day with when no one else was there, and now, after forty years, ‘aaj sathe nei chirosathi shei more puraton bhrityo’. No one who hasn’t known me and us will ever know what the ‘feudal’ relationship at its best can be, how little else there is in the world to compete with it (I have seen too few marital and filial and corporate relationships that can hold a candle) and how much I have lost. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me,’ of course, but some few diminish you much more than the rest – and for the remainder of my life I shall be a much diminished man. It is my great good fortune that God in His infinite mercy has answered a part of my prayers, in that Sudhirda died with the minimum of pain and indignity, and it will always be a matter of agonizing regret that he wasn’t given a few more years of peace and rest and fun in my care, as I had been trying to provide for him over this last decade, as very humble and inadequate recompense for everything. Childish I may be, but I will never be able to fly again without feeling a pang that I could never take you along with me. Goodbye, old friend. The thought that I might meet you again in a better place will greatly reduce my own suffering when death comes calling for me. If there are more lives to come, you will be a happy prince next time round, and may I have the good fortune to be your servant.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Why should I want to start a blog?

It is neither a case of vanity nor idleness, though I say so myself. I have been counselling people on almost every matter under the sun and giving encouragement and telling stories for well-nigh a quarter century, besides writing a considerable amount, both fiction and other stuff, and teaching all the time, with a short stint at journalism thrown in in between. Willy-nilly I have learnt a few interesting things about life and living, which I feel a never-ending urge to share with as many people as I can. Some of my ex-pupils, both young and not so young, have often expressed a wistfuless that they cannot keep in close and face-to-face contact any more; and disappointment that many of their friends have never had the chance to meet me and listen to me talk; some have even seen things I have written on the Net, and suggested that I start up a blog of my own. Hence this experiment. I would like my own old boys and girls to look up this site and post their comments and questions here first – then they might tell some friends to do the same. I have no desire whatever to impose myself as a fountain of wisdom upon the world: God knows there are too many like that around already, and I never thought that I was such a clever and profound person anyway. But it so happens that a very large number and variety of folks do keep looking me up and asking me about all sorts of things, from aeroplanes to love affairs, from literature to ecology, from health issues to career choices, so I thought that perhaps it mightn’t be a bad idea if I tried doing on the Net what I have naturally done for so many years with people face to face, so that my ‘net’ could be spread much wider, and a whole lot more people might derive the same kind of harmless enjoyment, if not benefit, that so many people close to me have done. Let’s see whether we can set a good thing going!
July 8, 2006

Saturday, July 08, 2006

First foray

I have been repeatedly told by a lot of ex-students that they want me musing on the Net. At 43, I thought I should make a beginning. So here's reaching out, in the hope of seeing some folks getting back to me. Lots more can follow.
Suvroda/Sir